I can’t remember how I actually first learned about BTS’s packs but suspect it was an Instagram photo. The simple, streamlined design, and it has to be said, the cool looks, demanded more research and before long I’d ordered one of their X Series Alpine Packs.
Built To Send is a small company and the service is superb. BTS’s founder, Tom was more than happy to answer all my questions in depth. This was a real bonus and much appreciated and helped with my choice of pack. They only make 4 packs, the XO, X1, X2 and X3 all of a similar design but differing mainly in volume. I opted for the X2 which seemed plenty big enough for guiding work but with enough capacity for my camera gear as well.
Having used BTS packs since last July, this review is a bit of a more long term test than some reviews out there. That may not sound that long term a test but the packs have been used extensively. A quick look though my diaries revealed that in that period the BTS packs were used for 98 days of mountain guiding and 74 days of mountain photography. All the guiding work and probably half the photography was done with the X2 so it’s had a lot of use and abuse. In addition, they were used for many days of local photography, going to the climbing wall and shops.
For those who don’t want to read long, potentially boring reviews, let’s cut to the chase. Over the years, I’ve used many different packs but have now seriously rationalised my collection and now only use three BTS packs. A Crux AK47, a Montane Ultra Alpine 38, an Arcteryx FL45 and Arcteryx Bora 65, a Berghaus Arete 45 and more have been sold, given away or hidden in the loft.
Glen Brittle provides the perfect base not just for our guiding and photography but as a location for putting gear through some tough testing
Label in pack
Alpine Customisation Pack
Simple design. One cavernous compartment and a zipped pocket
X2 in use on Cuillin ridge high above Loch Coruisk
X2 high above the clouds during a temperature inversion
BTS’s packs look very distinctive, both in design and colour. On their website they describe their ethos as, “Obsessively Engineered Alpine Packs, Hand Built In Great Britain For Missions All Over The world.” This may sound pretentious but read on to find out how hype matches the real world during months of testing in the Cuillin.
It’s a company with a very specific mission and everything is hand built in their UK factory. BTS may only be a small company but it’s one with a big mission and it’s a company that’s definitely going places (literally and physically). Their design ethos sounds brilliant but the real test is how the buzzword fuelled description fares in the real world?
Engineering-Led Design. Our Designs Are Refined And Purposeful. Everything Superfluous Is Removed. They Are Dialed. They Are The Extreme Minimum. They Are Bombproof Functionality. They Are The Result Of Engineering-Led Design, Not Design-Led Engineering
What’s so good about BTS’s packs that not only have they replaced kit by renowned manufacturers but I’ve bought three of them? Let’s list the pros in order of importance to me; your preferences may vary, your priorities may be different but read on and hopefully your questions will be answered.
1. Comfort. From the very start I was seriously impressed how comfortable the X2 was. No internal frame or metal stays, no moulded foam or plastic, just a simple design and high quality foam seems to do the trick. At first, I was really careful how I packed it but now, having felt how comfortable it is, I’m not so fussy.
The design and minimalist materials really defy logic since appearances suggest it shouldn’t be very comfortable. In reality, the X series are the most comfortable packs I’ve ever used. Not just comfortable for carrying large, heavy loads but comfortable to climb and scrambling .
“Our contoured shoulder straps and back panel are engineered from a proprietary foam (we developed our own 10 mm thick physically cross-linked polyethylene foam) based on a type used in fighter pilot seats."
The properties of this foam give it excellent load spreading capability for shoulder straps and belt pads (X2 and X3 packs), and make the back panel forgiving of poor packing when fully loaded. Shoulder and hip pads are low-profile, for harness compatibility during rock and ice climbing.”
This is going to sound stupid but the X series have a Tardis like level of comfort. Stripped to the minimum with no fancy padding or frame, it looks simple yet carries superbly. Even with heavy loads it feels really comfortable. With no frame or bulky padding you might expect things to dig in your back and thus need to be carefully packed but stuff can just be thrown in and the foam back just absorbs things pretty much no matter what the shape. The foam used seems to have fantastic energy absorbing properties and is very comfortable no matter how heavy the load. It’s 10mm thick on the back panel and developed from foam used on fighter pilots’ ejector seats. The shoulder straps are contoured for climbing and just let you get on with the job to hand. I originally opted for the X2 model which has a padded hipbelt rather than the plain 50mm webbing on the X0 and X1 models. Putting the pack on instantly feels like luxurious comfort even with a heavy/bulky load. The foam of the shoulder straps, hip belt and back provide such a comfortable carry that you are enveloped in a cocoon of comfort. In a perverse way the comfort is so good that it almost feel better carrying the pack than when walking without it. Now, obviously, that can’t really be true but it’s just how it feels to me!
2. Ease of use. This is a huge plus point for me. A simple roll top with a huge opening makes getting kit out or putting it away a doddle. The flat base and design means the packs stand up in a stable way and are easy to load/unload.
I’m a huge fan of roll top packs and BTS have put their own stamp on this genre with it’s “X-Fold” system which not only works really well but reduces the stresses and strains that a more conventional roll top suffers from. Roll tops are simple and quick to access and I quickly got used to them with my Montane Ultra and Arcteryx FL45. The Montane was brilliant for ease of access but, the overall durability was lacking. If the Arcteryx had had a conventional roll top design like a dry bag then it would have been fine. However, it had a drawcorded top which was a bit of a faff and within this was a roll topped waterproof sleeve which was a major faff. Not just a pain to use but water easily ponds up having got in through the drawcorded opening.
As mentioned, the one big compartment makes things simple but so does the way the pack stands up on it’s base and stays open. No frustrating balancing acts on small ledges as you fight to hold open the top to safely retrieve an item or put something away. It stays open like a mini haul bag (which it effectively is and can be used as such). The haul loop/handle on the top rear of the pack is huge (even larger than the one on my Crux AK47 which I thought was pretty big) and a doddle to use when the weather’s inclement and gloves are worn. In fact all the buckles and straps are easy to use with gloves.
3. Simplicity of design. Potential purchasers may think they aren’t getting value for money but, to me, less is very much more and never more so than when operating in a harsh mountain environment. All BTS packs are built pretty much to the same design, just the overall sizing and volume varying.
Some people will want pockets and pouches galore but, for me, one simple, large compartment does the job. It does require a bit of planning ahead and thought but it does make for a bombproof design with less to go wrong and less weight and a reduced faff factor as there aren’t endless zips and drawcords to undo, pockets to search.
The one gesture towards pack organisation is a usefully sized zipped pocket inside at the top of the back which has proved useful for safeguarding valuables like a phone and small items like food bars, sunscreen etc. The white fabric makes it light and easy to see stuff even at the base of the pack. A nice touch is that the black versions of the pack, like my XO, have a white inside.
Whilst the interior is a model of simplicity, the exterior can be as simple or complex as you like. Multiple attachment points down each side allow the addition of multiple 20mm straps to attach as much gear as you’d ever want. Think sleeping mats, skis, ropes and anything else your imagination and/or route desires. Also attachments for multiple ice tools can be added.
I really like that these are all supplied as an “Alpine Customisation Pack” as part of the deal unlike my Arcteryx FL45 which comes with attachment points but no straps etc. Some packs come with a myriad of straps and buckles which work well but are stitched on so the only way to remove them is to wield a knife.
The BTS pack is infinitely customisable and best of all it can be stripped down completely to save weight and keep the lines of the pack sleek and lean for those tough, big routes. Basically, they are just a simple, single compartment pack constructed in a bombproof way out of a single piece of ultra strong fabric. No separate compartments for sleeping bags, no separate pockets, pouches, zips or anything else that doesn’t contribute directly to the packs’ intended use. Think of a simple compartment with shoulder straps and waist belt as the only additions and you won’t go far wrong.
All the packs have the simple roll top closures akin to dry bags. Not just simple but quick and easy to operate and pretty much weatherproof. If you’re not an adherent of the Keep It Simple, Stupid philosophy then you’re not going to like these packs.
4. Durability. These packs seem bombproof and even after months of abrasive abuse by Cuillin gabbro show no sign of wear let alone any rips or tears. Given the amount they’ve been used, the loads carried and the torture test Cuillin conditions this is a true testament to their fairly long term durability. Whilst the jury’s out on the real long term durability, if there were any obvious weaknesses in design or fabric I think they would have become obvious by now.
The packs are built like a super strong haul bag and can indeed be hauled via the loops at the rim of the pack. Whilst my test has only been fairly short term, I can’t see why this pack shouldn’t last for a lifetime. BTS users I’ve spoken to have no complaints and all sing the praise of how durable the packs are. In an email, Tom said, “The bag should last you a LONG time – no reports of anyone seriously damaging one yet, other than someone who drove a commercial vehicle over one and dragged it 100 m down the road in the wheel arch.
“Our hardware is custom-designed and engineered from aerospace-grade aluminium, with a hard-anodized coating for extreme durability. Our seam allowances are almost twice the industry standard, and we triple stitch structural seams using V92 bonded polyester thread, exceeding the military specification for safety-critical equipment. Load-rated webbing is bar-tacked for extreme strength.” “We hand build our packs in limited numbers in Great Britain, to exacting engineering standards under an ISO 9001 quality system. Your BUILT TO SEND pack has been built without any compromise on quality. It’s the finest engineered and strongest pack on planet earth.”
The above statement may seem very confident but after a huge amount of use, the packs are all intact and although looking a bit used, show no signs of wear and tear.
5. Weight . Empty the X2 weighs 950g stripped or 1.085kg with full Alpine Customisation pack added. Not class leading light weight but a great compromise between weight and durability. The weight statistics show how obsessive BTS have been/are. The original packs were white but you can now get them in black as well but this adds about 25g so not one for the weight conscious.
6. Versatility. Whilst I like the simple design and sleek externals, all the packs come with an alpine accessory pack which can be used or not, as you choose. Add two compression straps on each side (ideal for Thermarests, ice tools, walking poles etc), add elasticated loops and straps for multiple ice tools, add elasticated cord for crampons or spare clothes. The permutations are endless and there are multiple attachment points down both sides of the packs.
7. Weatherproof. The fabric isn’t just bombproof but also waterproof. This is a real added bonus and the pack sheds snow and rain. It isn’t guaranteed waterproof since the seams aren’t sealed. Apparently this is due to the risk of heat used to add seam seals would damage the properties of the fabric (but, I suspect, it may also be down to cost and the amount of faff it would involve).
I’m guessing that much of the market for these packs is for alpine and greater range trips where shedding snow is the main requirement for weatherproofing. Here in Scotland there’s obviously, a lot of rain to keep out. On the whole it does a great job but I still put my kit in a large drybag. The major form of water ingress comes from having to open and close a pack in bad weather so the X series do well on this front due to ease and rapidity of opening and closing. I have noticed at the end of a day of torrential rain there may be some water in the base of the pack and assume it’s come in through the top when open.
8. Overload Capacity. This is a brilliantly useful feature and works really well with the roll top system and G Hook closure system. When the X2 pack is tightly rolled down it has a capacity of about 30 litres but with the top unrolled then capacity rises to 42 litres (X2 pack) This would work well for big climbs where extra gear may be needed on the walk in then the pack can be cinched down for the actual climb.
This type of adjustable load capacity works well for something like the Cuillin Ridge where you might be walking in from Glen Brittle or, better still, catching the boat from Elgol. For the boat trip/walk in the pack will be bulked out but by the time you get to the technical climbs at the TD Gap then a smaller pack will be an advantage; harness, helmet, rope and rack will no longer be taking up space in the pack.
BTS make a range of packs from the XO which is 25 litres (35 litres in overload mode) to the X3 which is 50 litres (65 litres in overload mode). I initially opted for the X2 as the optimum size for me. It may be on the large size for guiding but I wanted the extra space for photography missions. The X2 has a padded waistbelt which adds to the weight but makes for a much more comfortable carry. The X1 is the same size as the X2 but only has a webbing waist belt which shaves off a few grammes.
Pack XO X2 X3
Stripped Down Weight 0.83 kg 0.95 kg 1.065 kg
Weight With Accessory Pack 0.96 kg 1.08 kg 1.205 kg
Capacity 25 litres 30 litres 50 litres
Overload Capacity 35 litres 42 litres 65 litres
1. Cost. I’ll have to be honest and say that when I was researching these packs, much as they seemed to tick all the boxes, the high price almost put me off. The design lured me and a small discount offered by Tom sealed the deal. Even so, it was still expensive and probably about double the amount I’d previously spent on a pack, most having been bought in sales or secondhand.
In a way, I’m in an enviable position when it comes to gear. Kit can be offset against tax and the fact that I’m in the hills probably for 250 or more days per year means cost per day soon becomes minimal (so long as the kit lasts and doesn’t get trashed). I realise that for many people, two or three hundred pounds for a piece of kit may well be prohibitive and/or unjustifiable but for me, if it’s something I’m going to use day in, day out and it makes my working and leisure life easier then it’s a bit of a no brainer.
2. Colour . The white pack looks distinctive, a bit of a design statement but does begin to show the dirt. Luckily the packs, originally made only in white, are now also available in a dirt hiding black version.
BTS reckon, “Over the years the material will develop a softer appearance, and a unique patina. These battle scars improve the look of the packs, and remind us of the numerous adventures we have been on—that freshly unboxed look is hardly badass.”
Not sure about this rationale and the white packs do get grubby fairly easily. If used in an alpine environment then, I guess, the white would stay white but in Scotland with lots of rain and mud, they soon lose that pristine white look .
The rationale behind the white is mainly because that is the natural colour of the fabric and in keeping with BTS’ design ethos of stripping things to the bone and minimising weight, this makes sense. NB the black versions are dyed and weigh minimally more. The X2 was a bit of experiment with a white pack. The X3 was too much of a bargain not to worry too much about the colour. For the X0, I opted for black. Ideally, it would be nice to see a range of bright colours in the future.
3. Simplicity. For some users, the ultra simple design may be too simple and potential purchasers may want extra compartments, pockets, zips which may add utility but eat into the simple, weight shaving yet bombproof design ethos of BTS. If you like complex products, all singing all dancing packs with all the bells and whistles then give BTS a miss. 4. Limited Availability Being a small company, BTS probably doesn’t carry a huge stock but hopefully that will change with their move to new premises. It would be nice to see BTS packs in a range of bricks and mortar stores so people can see them, try them on and compare them to other packs. Hopefully, this will happen as the company grows.
Quite simply, I loved the X2 so much that a second purchase was almost inevitable. I knew I had some winter photo work and guiding coming up that would need a larger pack so the X3 was the obvious choice. One popped up on ebay, pretty much brand new and I made a lowball offer that, to my surprise, was accepted. Judging by the location of the logo, I think it might be an early model of the X3 but basically it’s an X2 on steroids. Exactly the same design but much larger.
The X2 was used for guiding and photo work until winter. Typically, for guiding it might contain;
40 meter Beal Joker Rope
Harness & Small Rack
First Aid Kit
Waterproofs & Spare Clothing
2 Litres of Water & Hill Food
Sony A7 & 35mm Lens in padded case
All this fits in easily and means a nice smooth exterior to the pack, nothing to snag or catch on rocks. It’s perfect for guiding and other work in the Cuillin. Out of season, it was used more for photography and easily coped with hill gear and photo kit. The luxurious feeling padded hip belt helps carry the load well
Whilst the X2 proved ideal for guiding work and photography trips including overnight bivis, something larger was needed for winter. Even for winter day trips, the X3 was useful, the huge size swallowing bulky camera gear but also winter clothing, flask and/or stove and winter essentials like crampons with ease. In winter, I like over sized packs so that there’s no fumbling with icy fingers to extricate tightly packed gear or fighting to get it all back in.
The X3 proved a worthwhile investment just for winter photography but really came into it’s own for overnight trips. Typical was a three day, two night late winter trip with a not great forecast and lots of snow and ice remaining. There were several photo locations I wanted to visit so I was weighed down with quite a bit of camera kit as well as bivi gear, food for three days, stove and ice axe and crampons.
It was a big load and the ultimate test for the X3.
Camera gear in a Tenba “Bring Your Own Bag” BYOB12 included;
Sony G Master 16-35mm lens
Sony 55mm lens
Zeiss Batis 85mm lens
Mindshift case containing Benro FH100m3 filter holder, CPL and 3 GNDs
Mountain Equipment Snowline sleeping bag
Food for three days
Goretex top and trousers
Patagonia DAS Parka
Ice axe and crampons.
A huge load but pretty comfortable considering the weight and bulk. Comfortwise, the pack performed faultlessly. Less higher performing were my ageing knees.
For previous such winter trips I’ve used an Arcteryx Bora 65, a very expensive pack (bought cheaply from a friend on Skye) with sumptuous padding. Ultra comfortable but at a big price in weight and bulk. I’m pretty sure the BTS X3 weights under half it’s weight yet feels more comfortable to wear.
With spring approaching fast and lots of guiding work booked for the summer, I opted to buy a BTS X0 pack, the smallest and lightest in their range. This is/will be ideal for lightweight guiding days and with the alpine accessory pack means that despite it’s small size, rope, helmet etc can easily be carried externally should it be necessary. To keep weight down and as a nudge towards a more climber friendly design, the waist belt is unpadded, a simple webbing strap that can either sit unobtrusively above a harness or be strapped around the back of the pack.
BTS packs are as close to indestructible as possible. Combing innovative materials and designs, they offer an ideal balance of simplicity, usability, comfort and durability. The biggest downer is the price but you know what you are getting will outlast most other packs on the planet. I’m a great believer in the adage, “Buy cheap, buy twice” and much prefer to do some research, find the best products for my needs then buy it even if it’s pricey. On previous packs, shoulder straps have become detached, stitching worn through, fabric torn, buckles broken. My previously large collection of packs was mainly due to lack of durability or not having a design that suited my needs.
BTS’s design perfectly meets my criteria, is bombproof and comfortable. It’s nice to be able to support a small, UK based company and give praise where praise is due. Check out their website and if you’re ever in Glen Brittle feel free to drop in for a brew and a chat and you can check out the BTS packs, all three of which are hanging up ready for use.
Sunrising between Knight's Peak and Sgurr nan Gillean. One of my favourite photos from this winter and taken during a 3 day expedition with the X3 p
X2 being worn during a photo trip.
X2 worn during guiding.
Copyright © 2022 All Things Cuillin - All Rights Reserved.